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Traffic stoppers; doing business along the Alaska highway.

Fifty years ago, Tetsa River at Mile 357 on the Alaska Highway in northern British Columbia was the site of a bustling U.S. Army construction camp. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was punching the first road north to Alaska. Smoke billowed from the laundry's massive steam boiler, and when the sawmill operated, particles of dust filled the air.

Today the scene is placid and tranquil. The camp's replacement, Tetsa River Services, beckons travelers along the highway to stop for gas or just a peaceful interlude with nature. The business, owned by Cliff and Loryne Andrews, fares well, compared to the many that come and go along this stretch of asphalt that originates in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and terminates 1,422 miles later in Delta Junction, Alaska. The road traverses a harsh physical environment, and hacking out a living along the highway is demanding.

The Andrews bought Tetsa River Services in 1977. At the time, the business consisted of a gas station, garage repair service and grocery store. Slow steady growth over the last 15 years has yielded a big-game-hunting guide service, rental cabins, campground and small bakery that produces some of the tastiest home-made bread around.

The recipe for their enterprise's success has been long hours of hard work and careful planning, the Andrews say. Doing business along the Alaska Highway is not unlike doing business in other places. All of the basic principles apply, but on the highway, logistics and remoteness amplify their importance.

Energy bills can run 10 times higher than in other places, because most businesses along the highway generate their own power supply. To the Andrews, that means dishing out $6,000 annually. They operate their power plant only during the summer; the rest of the year, they rely on a small generator for personal needs and pump gasoline manually.

Most tourists don't understand why gas is so expensive in Canada, Loryne Andrews says. Government taxes on gas are much higher than in the United States, and Canadians use the larger imperial gallon. "By the time I add on the cost of running my pumps and the expense of help, I'm nearly giving it away," she declares.

Harsh winters also add to the cost of doing business. Temperatures dipping to 60 below zero are unforgiving. "You can have breakdowns that are devastating," Loryne Andrews says. A loss of power usually means damage to other equipment. "You have to expect the unexpected," she adds.

Diversity has kept Tetsa River Services in the black. The role of roadside services, the main source of revenue in the company's early years, has been replaced by big-game guiding. The Andrews are licensed to use a 3,000- to 4,000-square-mile area for hunting. Each spring and fall, they host roughly 12 to 24 hunters, who typically pay between $4,000 and $8,000, depending on the game, for a 10-day trip with pack horses and individualized guiding.

Cliff Andrews runs the hunting service, and Loryne guides the roadside business. Tetsa River Services is known up and down the highway for its one-woman bakery. As loaves rise, Loryne Andrews pumps gas, chats with travelers, cleans bathrooms and monitors the campground. "This is a people business," she says. "You have to love people to be in it."

Home on the Highway. And you have to love the country, says Jack Gunness, owner of Double G Services and Muncho Lake Tours at Mile 456 just up the Alaska Highway from the Andrews. Gunness also wears many hats. When he's not slinging hash in the restaurant, he's overseeing a repair job in the garage. But his true love is acting as captain of his 20-passenger, 32-foot-long boat, the Sandpiper. Skimming the waters of emerald green Muncho Lake during a one-hour motored tour, Gunness spins a tale about the area's early residents, geological features and wildlife.

Muncho Lake Tours is the only tourist attraction of its kind in the wilderness along the entire length of the highway -- a fact that underscores how tough it is to make a go of a business along the road. "The proof is up and down the highway," Gunness says, referring to the many abandoned properties and projects. "You have to work hard, charge for your services and be a bit hard-nosed, or you don't make it."

Gunness has been operating a gas station, repair service, motel, restaurant, campground and tour-boat service since 1978. Business was good until 1982 when his profits began shrinking. Gunness attributes the slackening in part to the expense of an expansion and to high operating costs. His energy bill alone averages $3,000 a month, a bargain compared to his neighbors down the road who he says shell out an average of $5,000 a month to operate a large recreation vehicle park.

Gunness also notes that dwindling numbers of motorists have added to his financial woes. Last year, in particular, was devastating. Yukon Territory tourism along the Alaska Highway was down 35 percent, according to Gunness.

To compensate, he laid off employees midseason and worked as many hours as humanly possible himself. He feels the 7 percent Canadian government sales tax, combined with expensive gas and the recession, influenced travelers to stay at home.

Of those who made the trip, many bypassed Muncho Lake, heading up the widely promoted Cassiar Highway to Watson Lake in the Yukon. With the Alaska Highway's 50th anniversary celebration luring more tourists this year, Gunness hopes to see his business re-invigorated and turning a more substantial profit. He expected to be employing eight workers for the summer season.

Evolving Enterprise. At Johnson's Crossing Campground Services, across the border in the Yukon Territory at Mile 808, business has been growing steadily since 1947. The operation started as a lodge and service station. The father of present-day owner Ellen Davignon bought the abandoned property and Quonset huts located on the banks of the Teslin River from the U.S. Army. She and her husband Phil took over the business in 1965.

"We ran it in the traditional manner for 13 years," says Ellen Davignon. Then, in response to the changing needs of travelers, the couple discontinued the lodge operation and added campsites, a laundry, showers and a gift shop.

Anticipating tourists' needs has contributed to the success of the Davignons' business and other highway enterprises. "You have to have a hook to get people off the road," Ellen Davignon says. Her enticement is the biggest and tastiest cinnamon rolls along the highway. Also renowned are her homemade breads and pastries.

Each day during the tourist season, from mid-May to mid-September, Davignon rises at 2 a.m. and begins baking by 3 a.m. By the end of the day she has transformed 100 pounds of flour into edible delights.

Davignon's reputation as a baker and her outgoing personality have earned the business a year-round following. In the summer, 75 percent of company revenue is from sales to outsiders. The numbers reverse during the off-season with local Yukoners in the majority, she says.

Johnson's Crossing Campground Services is for sale, but not because the business is a loser. The Davignons have raised five children and worked unrelenting hours for nearly 30 years. "It's time to move down the road and take it easy," Ellen Davignon says.

And literally, down the road she means. "I wouldn't dream of living some place where I didn't know the people," she says.

In a territory with a population of less than 30,000, it's a sure bet that the Davignons can live about any place along the highway and know someone. In fact, it's rumored that gossip travels up and down the highway faster than the traffic. Loryne Andrews claims, "If I say something at this end, they know it in Fairbanks two days later."

Taking Root. Unlike the Davignons, some business owners are heading in the other direction, so to speak. The Deterdings recently moved from Colorado to keep their highway business, Border City Lodge at Mile 1225.5, open year-round. Since taking over the operation in 1987, they commuted to Alaska each summer.

The rise of vandalism is one reason the family decided to occupy the lodge year-round, Louis Deterding says. But the success of the business also drew them north. The operation's 10-percent to 20-percent-a-year growth rate has increased demands on the family's time. Planned expansion also will require more attention, he adds.

Deterding has begun clearing land to add a 20-acre RV park to the seven-room Border City Lodge. The business, located three and a half miles north of the Canada/Alaska border, also includes a cafe, gift shop and gas station. "There's real demand for an RV park on the U.S. side," Deterding says. He explains that tourists are anxious to escape the perceived higher cost of travel services in Canada.

While gas is cheaper in Alaska, prices for other goods are about the same. Echoing opinions of other highway business owners, Deterding says most tourists don't understand why prices along the Alaska Highway are so high. "The Canadians are handicapped by taxes," he notes. "U.S. tourists should understand they're in a foreign country."

Deterding says the cost of doing business in Alaska is inordinately high, too. "There's no grocery store around and no deliveries," he notes. "We make a trip to Fairbanks about every 10 days and stay 2 nights." Those costs must be figured into product prices. Highway prices are shocking to newcomers, Deterding admits.

Many travelers expect handouts, he adds. Deterding explains that too frequently families northbound on the highway are moving to Alaska with no job, no money, nothing. "I can't be Santa Claus," he says.

Operating a business along the highway is often people-intensive. Those demands combine with dawn-to-dusk work schedules to produce burnout. "You have to get away," Deterding explains. "Even if it's just a trip for groceries."

The long hours of hard work and the cash-draining cost of doing business beg the question: Why would anyone want to own a business along the highway? "You meet the most interesting people imaginable," answers Deterding. "I've had coffee with an astronaut, royalty and people of all nationalities."

Ellen Davignon says, "This business allows me to be an individual and do my own thing. I have a freedom other people have never experienced. I'm alone, but I'm never lonely."

Adds Muncho Lake Tours' Jack Gunness, "I don't want to be anywhere else. I love this country and the business allows me to stay here."

Perhaps Loryne Andrews says it best: "The air is great. The water is delicious. The land is luscious. How lucky can you get?"

Gloria Maschmeyer is the author and Alissa Crandall the photographer of a book entitled Along the Alaska Highway.

Published by Alaska Northwest Books, the 96-page softbound book sells for $16.95.

For information on events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Alaska Highway, contact:

* Great Alaska Highway Society, P.O. Box 74250, Fairbanks, AK 99707; (907) 452-8000

* Yukon Anniversaries Commission, Bag 1992, Whitehorse, YT, Canada Y1A 5L9; (403) 668-1992

* Alaska Highway Rendezvous '92, Suite 14-9223 100 St., Fort St. John, BC, Canada V1J 3X3; (604) 787-1992
COPYRIGHT 1992 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Maschmeyer, Gloria
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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